Winter Storm Elliott caused devastation throughout the Northeast, but power failures in the Southeast almost brought down the grid as far west as Oklahoma. Also, COP15 asserts that nature has rights
Winter Storm Elliott almost brought down the grid
Rolling blackouts were once as Californian as the Hollywood sign, but in recent years they’ve rolled eastward. First to Texas, where bitter cold and extended power failures killed over 700 people during a February 2021 winter storm (1). And then, just this past month, they arrived in the American South, where hundreds of thousands spent much of this past holiday season navigating extended periods of darkness and cold during the region’s devastating cold snap.
For both Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the rolling blackouts were the only option to stop a much larger grid collapse. The common theme for all these energy failures has been an aging grid poorly prepared for the extreme weather events brought about by climate change. (2)
This latest round of blackouts, centered on Duke Energy’s North Carolina customers, started on December 23rd and continued through Christmas morning, affecting over 500,000 residents in the Tar Heel state. The TVA, which provides electricity to seven states, also implemented rolling outages. Trees downed by high winds exacerbated the problem, but an overall lack of supplied electrical power was the main culprit.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper called for a report on Duke Energy’s failures. As part of that process, Duke Energy executives apologized for the power company’s failures during a hearing on January 3rd and detailed some of the issues that led to the outages.(3)
According to their testimony, several coal and gas power plants failed to operate correctly in the frigid temperatures, causing a plunge in energy generation just as the brutal cold was driving up demand. The resulting deficit threatened to bring down the entire Eastern Interconnection grid, which could have caused cascading outages from Maine to Oklahoma. Reducing demand through rolling blackouts was the option of last resort.
Making matters worse, the software that was responsible for bringing the grid back online failed in multiple locations, slowing the overall process of restoring power.
The blackouts were not limited to Duke Energy. Power generation dropped by as much as 70% at some coal-fired power plants operated by the TVA, which also instituted blackouts. During the cold wave, TVA’s coal-fueled power output dropped from four gigawatts to 1.5 over the course of a single day.
A release issued by Duke Energy stated, “The outages did not occur because of renewable energy generation.”
In fact, a recent report from the North American Energy Reliability Corporation specifically called out fossil fuel generation as a big cause of unreliability. According to the report, even regions like the Northeast, which have always dealt with frigid weather, would benefit from distributed energy sources such as solar. (4)
- Data-driven report says 700 died in Texas’ February power outages, not the 151 reported by the state
- US Electric Grid Narrowly Dodged Huge Collapse During Storm, Bloomberg
- Duke Energy apologizes for winter storm outages as FERC, NERC open investigation into grid failures, Utility Dive
- Winter Reliability Assessment, 2022-2023, NERC
UN Convention on Biological Diversity produces groundbreaking agreement
COP15, a conference held under the United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity, ended with nearly 200 countries signing a non-binding plan to promote biodiversity over the next decade. (5)
These non-binding documents can sometimes be dismissed as lacking enforcement, but the Kumming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework is notable for a significant shift in thinking. The document, which sets out biodiversity goals for 2030, frames much of its guidelines as rights issues. The document emphasizes access to a healthy ecosystem as a basic human right. The framework also promotes the rights of indigenous peoples and their place in the ecosystem along with their history of protecting it.
Another shift is in response to the rights of nature movement, which was emphasized in the document. By acknowledging “biodiversity, ecosystems, Mother Earth, and systems of life” as rights-holders in “diverse value systems and concepts,” the document encourages governments to stop viewing nature as a resource to be exploited. Instead, nature itself should be seen as a legal entity.
Finally, the document highlights the disproportionate responsibility wealthier countries have for environmental degradation across the globe. The conference and pledges placed much of the financial burden for remedies on those governments.
Although the document is nonbinding, its language informs how many public and private conservation efforts are implemented. The framework included 23 biodiversity targets for 2030 including the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans and lands. More than $200 billion was pledged for the work by participating governments.
The Weekly Sunsong
Welcome to 2023! The new year is always time for optimism, and there is no more sunnily optimistic song than the Fifth Dimensions’ Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine. Far out, man!